Nobody really knows how it started, just that it did. Did Charles Colson send G. Gordon Liddy? Was it Howard Hunt trying to relive his CIA days with his old Cuba buddies? Was James McCord sent by the CIA itself? How were John Mitchell and Richard Nixon involved? In any event, a team of burglars entered the Watergate office/apartment complex to raid the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee and got caught. One of them had Howard Hunt’s White House phone number, and it was off to the races.
In Watergate, Thomas Mallon mines the scandal and reconstructs the fallout among the Nixon Administration and its supporters. He’s not so much interested in the mechanics of how a “third-rate burglary” metastasized into a full-blown Constitutional crisis as he is in the mental and emotional effects on people such as Fred LaRue and Rose Mary Woods as the cover-up melted down.
LaRue, whose name is not as recognized as HR Haldeman or John Erlichmann’s, is tormented by his personal history and bemused at the idea that he walked away from an oil fortune to become a political bagman. Woods is an iron lady whose unconditional support of the President is tested by Nixon’s lack of loyalty to her. Among the actual burglary conspirators, Howard Hunt is distraught, questioning whether he subconsciously derailed the burglary, and afraid that he is being set up as the fall guy.
Mallon also creates the interior lives of Richard and Pat Nixon. Pat, often characterized as a plastic political wife, carries on an affair while living in New York, and seriously considers leaving her husband for her true love. She’s also deeply angry at Dick for his passivity in the face of the investigations. Dick is self pitying and confounded by the media fascination with Watergate in the midst of his successful foreign affairs and economic policies.
The most fascinating character Mallon creates is Alice Roosevelt Longworth. The daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt, she knows all the political and domestic dirt on the whole Washington crew, and her own peccadilloes are well known among longtime Washingtonians. Her well-honed political instincts are dismissed by other characters as the foolishness of a 90-year old woman better known for her witty salons than her inside knowledge. How would the whole thing have played out had Nixon listened to her?
In the long run, as Mallon leads the reader to conclude, it doesn’t matter how the whole thing started. The Watergate scandal peeled back the lid on the rotten core of Nixon’s blowout 1972 re-election. The dirty tricks, the illegal cash transfusions, the bribery, and the idea that those things mattered less than getting Nixon re-elected infected the souls of the President and his advisors, and that’s what created the revulsion that Nixon couldn’t understand.
There is a tinge of satire in Watergate, but the final effect is that of a tragedy. For those who view Watergate and Nixon’s resignation as the well-deserved defeat of a soulless man, Mallon uncovers areas where we can sympathize with him. For those who still admire Nixon, Mallon reveals a man fundamentally self-centered and in many ways unlikeable. That Mallon is able to do both is a function of his skill at absorbing history and digging into the psyches of those who think they make it.
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